When Susan Collins was thinking about leaving the U.S. Senate and running for governor next year, she was warned that she would face right-wingers in a bruising Republican primary. She could win a general election easily, but winning the nomination would be tough.
Whether that was a factor in her decision to stick with the Senate, we may never know. She would have had to spend months focused on the primary battle, time she could better use in pushing reasonable solutions to national issues in Washington.
But the question raised by the potential challenge to Collins is being asked all over the country. Will Republican office holders, no matter how conservative, fall to “populist” purity advocates?
The populists are steadfastly anti-immigrant, pro-tax cuts and seek repeal of the Affordable Care Act and much government regulation. Their flag bearer is President Trump, though their real leader may be Steve Bannon, an unelected ideologue backed by the billionaire Mercer family.
Trump’s popularity, whatever it may be, depends on trying to keep his campaign promises. He knows that is more important than any policy. He even asked the Mexican president to hint that Mexico would pay for the border wall, to allow him to appear to keep his promise.
Bannon is riding high because a man, twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court for what amounted to constitutional violations, defeated an “establishment” conservative Republican for the GOP Senate nomination. Bannon takes the credit for that win and expects more such victories.
Bannon argues that the litmus test must be whether a Republican supports Trump. But Trump’s entire political purpose is about winning and getting the credit. He is willing to exploit populist support, so Bannon can use the president’s personal ambition for his own purposes.
The critical test has been whether the Republicans, in control of the federal government, can kill the ACA. If not, they must have tax reform, really a massive tax cut, by the end of the year. Failing that, Bannon would launch a full-scale attack on Republicans who had failed to support Trump and pass a tax reform bill.
Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas GOP populist, believes that failure to enact tax cuts and ACA repeal could bring an historic “blowout” for his party next November. The GOP risk losing control of Congress if it does not keep its promises, he says.
But one forgotten Republican promise would be cutting the federal deficit, sacrificed for the tax cut. Major Republican backers are ready to pour money into the elections. For them, it is not a matter of populism, just about massive tax cuts for themselves. Whatever their intent, they will help the populists try to seize power.
The result of their efforts and Bannon’s could be a deep split among Republicans. The kind of venom directed at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by the populists is a possible indicator of events to come.
Or maybe Bannon is wrong about what people want. Having seen what the populists would do if they gain power, voters might return to supporting traditional GOP conservatives. Is populism merely a passing fad?
The Democrats are counting on one of the two outcomes being correct – the GOP splits apart or voters support the ACA, oppose tax cuts for the wealthy and reject populism. Either way, they can return to power.
There are problems with this Democratic dream. The internal divide between their establishment and the Sanders liberals could prevent them from unifying. Or, populism could be more than a fad and turn out to have the support of enough voters to win elections and govern.
Look at Europe. In country after country this year, populists or their equivalent have been winning more seats in national parliaments. Just last Sunday, they moved toward tacking control in Austria.
The leader of the successful Brexit campaign, based on opposition to immigration, showed up in Alabama to support Bannon’s candidate. Opposing immigration in the U.S. or Europe appears to be a political plus.
It is easy to believe polls that show Trump’s support declining or increased backing for the ACA. But they are only polls, not elections. Political dynamics are changing. Campaigns matter and voters may be moved by their momentum.
For the Democrats, the test is to offer innovative policies, find strong and younger leaders to promote them and to be unified, not splintered.
For the Republicans, the test is for moderates and conservatives is not to run scared, but to have the courage of their beliefs and raise the money to run decent campaigns.